Sunday, July 12, 2020

Politics and religion in present day Botswana (Part I)

President Ian Khama’s assumption of office in 2009 was dramatic, followed by the announcement of numerous Dees (democracy, dignity, discipline and delivery in no order), embodied in both the exorbitant alcohol levy and heavy traffic fines and a re-structured and heavily financed intelligence community and the controversial Media Act. Discipline and delivery appeared to be President Khama’s top priorities and the regime promised to be the most productive.

What is conspicuously missing in the whole equation is religion and philosophy, the cornerstone of peacefully ordered human behavior. Clifford Geertz warns about the dangers of sudden changes that amount to chaos: There are at least three points where chaos ÔÇô a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability ÔÇô threatens to break in upon man: at the limits of his analytic capacities, at the limits of his power of endurance, and at the limits of his moral insight. Bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox are all, if they become intense enough or are sustained long enough, radical challenges to the proposition that life is comprehensible and that we can, by taking thought, orient ourselves effectively within it ÔÇô challenges with which any religion, however ‘primitive’, which hopes to persist must attempt somehow to cope’ (Geertz, 1973: p100).

This means that, the BDP new regime’s introduction of tough actions in many fronts (in an environment of limited presidential speeches, constrained debate and suppression of freedom of speech) characterized a sudden eruption of events that resulted in state-induced chaos. If these are prolonged long enough, they may challenge society’s analytic capabilities, its power of endurance and dampen its moral insight (uncharacteristically, Batswana priests have been as quiet as dead). A state-induced chaotic situation that lacks positive interpretation and is un-interpretable makes it impossible to instill any discipline. Geertz add that sudden eruptions of events (particularly consistently re-experienced suffering and lack of understanding) engender in man the disquieting sense that his cognitive resources unavailing. Thus, sudden eruption of events that threaten the dominant ways of understanding and shatters all mythical conceptions about the human life, bring confusion and brings people to alertness. In contrast, Batswana are accustomed to being consulted and allowed to debate even things they do not understand, where even the most irrelevant and the most uninformed, are given repeated chances to speak (mmua lebe gore mmua lentle a ntshe la gagwe). Batswana believe that bad ideas create room for good ideas to emerge. They believe that restricted debate and government impositions prevent good ideas from emerging and from gaining popularity. Thus, Tswana social values are against impositions of any sort and promote the diversity of opinions. The introduction of tough action in many fronts instilled fear (rather than discipline and productivity) in the whole public service, in the members of the rival faction within the ruling party, in the private media, in religious circles, in academics and in civil society. The presence of a heavily funded new intelligence agency at the centre of state power worsened the fear that cell phones were no longer a safe mode of communication and that any mode of communication was no longer safe.

The fear of telephone tapping even spread to ruling party MPs of the Barataphathi faction, to the private journalists, private lawyers, academics, trade unions and priests. The fear spread further to parliament and to the army who also suspected that spies had been massed around their grounds.
There were even fears that listening devices have been inserted in car-lock systems to record people’s conversations. Even though the minister of Defence, Justice and Security denied allegations of phone tapping and spying, the perceptions have persisted. These developments exist parallel to, and outside the Tswana value systems and threaten the society’s cognitive resources, and this may encourage rebellion against the new system. What instilled more fear about the chaos of the new regime and later boiled into anger among the different elite was the manner in which senior civil servants (about 19 in a space of 6 months) were expelled, in which senior ruling party officers (including ruling party MPs) continued to be expelled, in which senior army officers were being retired, in which academics (the Zimbabwean lecturing in media studies immediately comes to mind) and priests who had lost favour with the regime were declared persona non-grata.

Gomolemo Motswaledi, a senior ruling party functionary who had taken President Khama to court over sharp differences over the running of the party, was suspended and his candidature recalled in manners that bordered on inhumanity. All that were retired or expelled after him bore the same stamp. Above all, the ever mounting extra-judiciary killings were the most visible reminder of the brutality of the new regime.

Scholars such as Kenneth Good and Ian Taylor had started writing about the rising authoritarianism, and others such as Sebudubudu and company, have started writing about its entrenchment.
They portray the new regime as imposing militaristic discipline in the society, intolerant to independent thought no matter how less challenging, brutal in its dealings with perceived opponents, and express fear and anger that all freedoms (including religious ones) are disappearing faster than they did in Zimbabwe which took time to experience the chaos and unpredictability. However, it seems that all these authors got it partly right and partly wrong: they got it right in the actions of the new regime, but they got it wrong in the presence and determination of the forces of resistance against authoritarianism.

While there is no doubt that the new regime seeks to entrench authoritarian rule, the forces of resistance are equally gathering pace to match it. Thus, the above authors only saw the rising authoritarianism, and failed to see the rising forces of resistance and the politics of liberation. What started as the most feared and as the most potentially productive regime has turned out to be the most opposed and most beleaguered. How did this reverse happen? Many authors (including Good, Taylor and others) mistakenly assumed that Botswana’s civil society was too weak and would not stand up to any dictatorship. It seems like the regime also believed such authors. Ironically, opposition against dictatorship swelled within the BDP itself, particularly the Kanye Congress that elected an overwhelmingly Barataphathi central committee, with Khama as the only one from the other faction.

It was that Central Committee that sought to check Khama’s powers and started the ball rolling, questioning his perceived unilateralism and seeking legal opinions against him.
It should be remembered that this happened at a time when the private media and its organizations such as Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Botswana) had already started their own campaign against the media Act of 2008, refusing to participate in oversight structures set up by the government.

It also happened at a time when the public sector unions that had started unionizing, called for the speedy implementation of the 2008 Public Service Act tin order to stop the forced retirement which the government was speedily implementing against its employees. The public service trade unions had also started to openly identify with the Barataphathi faction and with other opposition parties, and became actively involved in the 2010 elections, including their issuance of posters of five men (including Vice President Merafhe) whom they accused of being a danger to democracy.
The entry of public sector trade unions into politics emboldened civil society organizations such as BOCONGO that had already opposed the creation of a larger intelligence organization, and started organizing breakfast talks on the ‘State of the Nation’ address. By the time the new BDP regime won the 2009 general election, it was already facing serious ideological challenges.
Its vision of Botswana characterized by a completely militarized state in which retired and serving soldiers controlled all the institutions of the state, a completely loyal citizenry whose private life was strictly controlled by the state and by traditional authorities, a public workforce that was sufficiently intimidated, obedient and weary of protests and demonstrations, a religious community that practically praised the political leadership and participated in enforcing state-sponsored morality (not religious morality), was under serious questioning.

President Khama, known for his not too friendly attitude towards the media, was nowhere to defend it until recently. Observers such as Log Raditlhokwa noted that President Khama was not sufficiently visible and did not come up with a philosophy for his vision.
A vision anchored on discipline without a public philosophy to sweeten it and to make it legitimate, exposed its naked dictatorial tendencies which came to define it.
Such a philosophy-less vision contradicted the democratic norms of a society accustomed to live in freedom.

*Dr MAUNDENI is a senior lecturer in Political Science, University of Botswana He presented this paper at a workshop for priests on May 25th, 2010

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